Birth is an amazing experience, I promise. But it’s not what you might call “fun”. It’s as scary and dramatic and earth shattering as it is normal and every-day. A report out last week from the National Childbirth Trust and the National Federation for Women’s Institutes found that some women felt “like cattle” or “on a production line” when giving birth. It is hardly surprising given the very nature of the NHS, which treats illness, not patients, and values the “wait” and the “queue” above all else.
Many women’s negative reports highlight why midwives, maternity unit managers and governments need to constantly remind themselves that they are dealing with more than a four-limbed lifeform springing from a screaming, disembodied vagina. Birth is about a new person emerging, miraculously, from another person – who might have very very strong feelings about the whole shocking and often undignified process.
Just because 85 babies can be born per week in a single hospital, it is so important to remember how massive each and every birth is to the women there. Giving birth is not the same as having a mole removed. There are distinct mental health implications, so the overall well-being of the mother – beyond how well her stitches are healing – is vital.
I gave birth on two occasions in an extremely rickety NHS hospital, the first time was awful and medicalised and anonymous (indeed, I felt like cattle). The second was quite straightforward in a midwife led unit with very supportive staff. My third child was born on the way to the same hospital in the car, for which I am forever extremely grateful.
I don’t wish to moan too much – my babies were fine and I’m extremely lucky and grateful to the staff that saw (most) of them into the world. This is not Sierra Leone, after all, and we are fortunate. But there are several things that would have helped me when I was having my first baby, at least, that should not be too much to ask for:
1. When my waters broke in the night, for someone on the maternity unit to bother answering the phone. Come on guys, I'm having a baby here.
2. When I arrived at hospital saying my waters had broken, not to be looked at with a level of suspicion seen only in spy dramas. “NO I HAVE NOT PISSED MYSELF. WHAT IS THIS OBSESSION WITH WOMEN’S WEAK BLADDERS?” (I blame those adverts for Tena Lady)
3. To not be placed – in terrible pain - in a bed directly under a hot heating vent, in a cubicle the size of a toilet booth for six hours. God it was sweaty and I hadn't even got to the pushing stage.
4. To not be told to “stop vomiting”. What do you want me to do? Swallow it?
5. To not be asked constantly what pain relief I wanted then be given none. Ouch.
6. To not be treated with suspicion because I asked for the midwife’s name (I quote: “She’s a journalist, she’s taking notes”). She was right. I was.
7. To not be told that I was screaming and grunting in an inappropriate fashion. Higher? Lower? Which would suit the appropriate protocols? I have an excellent vocal range.
8. To not be told, in a threatening voice, that if I didn’t get a move on then the doctor would have to be called (with no medical reason given). There was increasingly angry talk of suction cups.
9. To not find myself, afterward, fending for myself on an abandoned ward with no heating and a torn curtain and an unadjustable bed from the 1950s. Well, at least I had the place to myself.
10. To, in the days following the birth, as I struggled around the house recovering from a excruciating episiotomy, be able to get in touch with a midwife to discuss my worries about the baby (yeah, ok, I was worrying too much, but still).